In 1954, George Benson (then known as Little Georgie) released a single for RCA called “She Makes Me Mad.” The multi-talented guitarist/singer started as a child prodigy and honed his craft on the ukulele and later, the guitar. By 1961, Benson had become a proficient guitar player and one of his first professional jobs was playing with renown organist, Jack McDuff.
Benson debuted as a solo act in 1965 and released two titles for Columbia, The George Benson Cookbook and It’s Uptown. These albums are of the cooking, post-bop variety, and even early on Benson was known for his swing and his versatility. Benson then signed to Verve Records and released Giblet Gravy and Goodies. Much of the work was similar to what Wes Montgomery had been doing on his last albums. Benson would begin to find his own voice during the next phase of his career.
In the late ‘60s, Benson signed to A&M and recorded a string of well-received albums such as The Shape Of Things to Come and Tell it Like It Is. 1970’s The Other Side of Abbey Road seemed to augur Benson’s next direction, as the album featured Benson’s full-bodied tone from his signature Ibanez guitars, as well as his emerging singing voice on “Golden Slumbers” and “Here Comes The Sun.”
Benson signed to CTI proper in 1971 and was produced by label head Creed Taylor. During that era, Benson worked with numerous arrangers like from Don Sebesky, Pee Wee Ellis, David Matthews, and Bob James. In many ways, Benson was a perfect candidate for the all-star sidemen. Benson was an animated and vivid player with a personal and readily indefinable style that cut through any production scheme. Albums like White Rabbit, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Body Talk, and the particularly varied Bad Benson were a pastiche of the experimental, pop, R&B and pure jazz playing.
In 1976, Benson released Good King Bad. On the surface it seemed to be another customarily good period album, but it struck a bit deeper. Good King Bad was filled with comfortable CTI production values and had songs like “Em,” “Shell of a Man,” and the title track, which had a certain commerciality that merged well with Benson’s serious playing and work ethic. Good King Bad was the last of Benson’s solo albums to be produced by Creed Taylor.
That same year, Benson left CTI for Warner Bros. Benson’s first album, Breezin’, went beyond the mid-‘70s CTI archetype with even better sound and more precise production values. Breezin’ was produced by Tommy LiPuma and arranged by Claus Ogerman, and offered one high point after another including the Bobby Womack-penned title track and romantic and emotional favorites like “So This Is Love?” and “Lady.”
The album’s big hit, “This Masquerade,” featured an equal mix of Benson’s singing and his guitar playing, and both brought him new found accolades. Breezin’ was a multi-platinum seller, a #1 R&B seller, and hit the pop charts at #1 during the mid-summer in 1976. The album went triple platinum and came to define Benson’s late ’70s sound. Breezin’ certainly wasn’t forgotten during the awards season. In 1977, Benson won three Grammys—Best Pop Instrumental Performance, Record of the Year for ”This Masquerade,” and “Theme from Good King Bad” won for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
Benson followed Breezin’ with early 1977’s In Flight. Although the LP didn’t have its predecessor’s offhanded charm, songs like Benson’s cover of War’s “The World is a Ghetto” and Donny Hathaway’s “Valdez in the Country” showed his continued strong playing and the proficiency of his band.
In mid-1977, Benson released the popular single “The Greatest Love of All” from the Muhammad Ali film, The Greatest. Benson performed live on Weekend in LA, and the arrangements seemed to flourish in the relaxed and casual environment. The double LP featured the popular single “On Broadway” and the swinging “We Remember Wes,” Stevie Wonder’s fond tribute to Wes Montgomery.
Benson returned to the studio for the 1979 double album Livin’ Inside Your Love, which featured his popular jaunty take on the LTD classic, “Love Ballad.” After the somewhat disappointing Livin’ Inside Your Love, Benson paired with Quincy Jones for 1980’s Give Me the Night. The album was filled with great Quincy Jones productions like “Love X Love,” “Moody’s Mood For Love,” and the #1 R&B hit, “Give Me the Night.” Give Me the Night earned Benson Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Performance Male for “Moody’s Mood For Love,” and “Off Broadway” won for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. The album won for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
The George Benson Collection was released on 1981. The 2-album set joined Benson’s CTI work and his Warner Bros. hits. The album was an immediate hit and offered two new tracks, “Never Give Up on a Good Thing” and “Turn Your Love Around,” the latter of which went to #1 on the R&B charts.
1983’s In Your Eyes was produced by Arif Mardin, who had previously produced Benson on his duets with Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. The album’s first single, the sharp “Inside Love (So Personal),” was a co-production between Mardin and Kashif. The rest of the album also offered solid work like the pop classic, “Lady Love Me (One More Time)” and “Love Will Come Again” which featured vocals from Chaka Khan.
In 1985, Benson released 20/20. By this point, Benson’s pop ambitions had to be a bit tedious to some long-time fans. The album featured adult contemporary fare such as “I Just Want to Hang Around You,” “Nothing’s Going to Change My Love For You,” and Benson’s duet with Roberta Flack, “You Are The Love Of My Life.”
By the mid-‘80s, Warner Bros. seemed to be positioning him to more R&B-styled work due to the diminishing returns on the pop charts. To his credit, Benson never seemed to be hesitant to try new sounds and production teams, but his guitar playing seemed to be a production afterthought. In 1986, Benson released the not bad While The City Sleeps. The first single, “Shiver” (produced by Narada Michael Walden and Preston Glass), had that great, radio-ready ’80s sound. The album also included the popular single “Kisses in the Moonlight.”
The late ’80s provided Benson with continued success and a few challenges as well. In 1987, Benson teamed with fellow guitarist and old friend Earl Kluge for Collaboration. The project was in the mold of quiet storm, commercial albums of the day. Songs like “Mt. Airy Road,” “Mimosa,” and “Collaboration” were welcomed to jazzy playlists. By 1988, Benson was back doing pop R&B with Twice the Love. The glossy, prototypical late ’80s effort had a staggering six producers and produced one hit single, his so-so cover of the Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again.”
In 1989, Benson re-teamed with Tommy LiPuma for Tenderly, which was a straight ahead jazz effort with players such as Ron Carter. The all but forgotten Big Boss Band and 1993’s Love Remembers closed out Benson’s nearly 20-year stint with Warner Bros.
In 1995, Benson signed with GRP and returned to more jazz fare. While he didn’t have Warner Bros. publicity machine behind him, Benson amassed an array of albums like That’s Right, Absolute Benson, and Standing Together. In 2006, Benson signed to Concord Recordsand worked with Al Jarreau for the album Giving It Up. The LP won two Grammys: ”Mornin’” won for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and “God Bless the Child” (featuring Jill Scott) won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Benson’s later titles include Songs and Stories, Guitar Man, and Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. George Benson has 14 #1 albums on the jazz charts and 7 gold or platinum albums.
Jason Elias is a pop cultural historian and a music journalist.